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Existential Selfishness and the Student Dilemma

As a senior in high school, it feels like the past year of my life has been dominated by the same question, that time after time, I can’t answer.

What’s next? 

Those words make my heart fall down to my stomach because frankly, I have no idea. My whole teenage years I’ve been obsessed with being mature and appearing old and growing up, and then someone asks me a question like that and suddenly I want to get tucked into bed. 

Because, for the twelve years of school before now, the answer would have been “Well, next year.”, and for the first, vulnerable time, it’s essentially up to me. This newfound sense of autonomy is scary, and the possibilities seem more daunting than exciting. 

But if you’re anything like me, it feels like the concept of having a choice is an illusion-- I’m going to college. I have to go to college. Within my high school subculture, there is an unspoken social rule or obligation to. Maybe this is due to the fact that, based on my US experiences, teens are groomed into a culture that presents college as the only way to be successful. For a lot of my life, I’ve felt that college was merely a vessel to become the most hireable, highest wage-earning employee. 

College has a way of making me think about practicality and financial opportunities more than passion and interest, and I realize this indoctrination from the pressure of my parents, friends, and society is no way to view the world. I know I have to stop thinking of college as a stepping stone from student to employee and more of an opportunity to pursue the study of a subject I’m passionate about, but I can’t help it. 

Though college is definitely an answer to that What’s next?question, it makes it a lot more complicated. It seems to always send me in an existential spiral, wondering what exactly I’d like to do with my life in the grand scheme of things, and I’m again brought back to the fact that I’m a 16-year-old kid writing this from a twin-sized bed. It’s especially scary because I have to think about myself in a way I’m not used to. A lot of the time, I have no idea what I want to do, and school has made me feel like I have to do an analysis of all my potential and skills and just do whatever I’m most capable of even if it’s too hard and I hate it. 

I know other kids have been subjected to this mindset because there are kids in computer science classes even when they know their passion is dance. Of course, I value computer science zealots, but when I see this, my heart breaks, but I know it’s because they’ll only feel productive if they get a job that they have to sit at a desk for, or they feel they won’t contribute anything to the world if they don’t seek out a left-brained opportunity. I wish I could shake them awake from this mindset, but I really understand. I understand how hard it is to choose personal fulfillment over the prospect of success by financial stability, parent approval, and practical application. 

So many friends of mine even talk about how much they would want to become teachers but are hesitant because they believe they’re capable of “more”, and it’s jarring knowing that this is how we have grown to think. I know that being a teacher is one of the most impactful and important jobs ever-- I imagine all the teachers who have taught me something beyond the classroom and changed me in some special way. There are even some teachers I had when I was five or six years old, that I wish I could tell how much they shaped my childhood for the better. 

How did we get to this point, forcing ourselves to look beyond what we truly want to do? I can’t help but imagine how different our world would be if we didn’t reject our intuition, or suppress our interests, and were a little more selfish in the best way possible. I think getting to this point requires a strong sense of self-acceptance, conveniently something the young teenage mind seems to lack. In fact, we tend to doubt our abilities, thoughts, and dismiss our feelings. It seems we think that we can’t change the world if we teach high school.

But as I get older, the more I believe in the butterfly effect. I reflect a lot on how all the little details and events in my life have led me to this point, as this person. At the same time, I understand the influence of everyone I’ve ever met, whether I knew them as my friends, teachers, coaches, artists, actors, singers, someone on the internet… and so I know what I’ve done, and all I’ll do, matters in the same way. It gives me peace of mind to know I’ll have changed someone’s life by the time I’m done, and I feel a little less choked by the whole college thing. I’m less worried about how much money I’ll make, but the effects I’ll ultimately have on someone else. So what’s next? I don’t entirely know, but I’m sure it will be what I want.

-Caroline Goodsell

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